Michael Crane started Crane Brewing Company after winning eighty medals in craft brewing competition, including two Best of Show awards, despite not being a drinker. “I don’t drink a lot because it doesn’t really take a lot to get me kind of tipsy, but I do like the taste of just about anything, bourbon, every kind of beer I can get my hands on. Small amounts because I don’t like the feeling of the room spinning around.”

It Started With a Mr. Beer Kit in December 2009

Michael started home brewing with his sons. It was a hobby that tapped into his creative side as well as his desire to make things that people enthusiastically enjoyed. The way he tells it his sons “were into craft beer, and we saw the Mr. Beer kit on closeout for $15, I thought, well not much to lose, and if it makes something drinkable that would be pretty cool too. So the kit came with a few different cans of hopped wort basically to brew a couple batches of beer, and we did it together. I started researching and quickly became fascinated with the science, and shortly became obsessed with it. So that was December 2009.”“Early in 2010 I decided to start writing things down … so I could … follow so I’d just know each step that I needed to do. …by the end of 2010, I had done 42 batches, and I was doing 15 gallons every week.”

Pretty Soon the Competition Bug Hit

“Shortly after that, I joined a home brew club, and that’s where I found out about home brew competitions. I knew so little about it, I remember talking to my son one day, and he said, ‘Dad, do you remember that beer we brewed over Thanksgiving?’ I said yeah. He said, ‘Well dad, that’s a Saison,’ I said okay. He said, ‘So enter it as a Saison’ So I did, and got first place…”

An important part of the competition for Michael was recognition for the work he did. As an owner of a manufacturing business, he rarely got the credit for the products he turned out. “… And that was pretty cool because I got to stand up and people clapped. I had been in manufacturing for 22 years before that, and everything that I manufactured was through a distributor. The distributor got all the credit, the distributor got their name on the products, and so to get recognition for some significant work, I appreciated it.”

“And so then I started entering more competitions, and then more, and then brewing more, and eventually was making 25 or 30 gallons every week.”

Despite the adulation that come with winning eighty medals and two Best of Show awards, there was still something missing. “But the one thing that I never did get … in a lot of these competitions, part of the competition was they would take beers from the Best of Show round, and a brewery would scale those up. And on two occasions, I got second place to that. So I never got one scaled up.”

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Crane Brewing: Everything is Timing

Twenty-two years in manufacturing came to an end when Michael’s biggest customer decided to outsource his manufacturing to China.

“…in the summer of 2013, I had been winning a lot of competitions, and … a gentleman, Chris Meyers, had been in the process of planning to start a brewery, and he reached out to me. And at the time, I wasn’t really interested in being involved in starting a brewery, but within a few weeks of that, I got a message from our largest customer that we were doing store fixtures for, and found out that they were going to take everything and have it made in China.”

“Chris reached out a second time, I had already gotten the message that our biggest customer was going to be knocking everything off and made in China, and I was investigating starting a brewery, so Chris said, ‘Well, why don’t I just join you, and we’ll start together.’ And I said that’s a great idea.”

Team Building

Michael and Chris set about building a team that played to everyone’s strengths. Michael became the “face of the brewery. I am out and about visiting accounts, spreading sort of the love and the passion about what we’re doing.” Michael is President and Co-Founder. Chris manages the Crane Brewing Tap Room, and is Vice President and Co-Founder. A veteran of the Kansas City Bier Meisters, “Randy Strange is our Head Brewer today.” Jason Louk, the CPA who helped Michael with his manufacturing business, was brought in to help with the financials of the initial business plan, and is now CEO. Aaron Bryant, the Operations Manager, “manages production and everything it takes to get materials in and supplies for making beer, and getting beers out the door.”

Coordinating the team in the beginning took some work. “Early on, … we got into some texting amongst the six of us…” but that didn’t work out so well, and things quickly evolved. “…a five minute conversation in person can take care of about three hours of texting back and forth. So we get together regularly, and just do strategic planning, talk about the beers coming out, try to keep everyone on the same page. But most of the time I’m able to step away from that, and not be readily involved.”

Meeting the Challenges

Michael says that Crane Brewing is “…just like any business, there’s cash flow issues, but just keeping everybody going the right direction, or forward, and knowing which direction it’s going to be takes some patience and some discussions.”

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“I think the biggest challenge of all is having five partners that are basically five chiefs. So learning to work, and it took a while for everyone to fit into their own niche, and figure out what they do the best. But the one thing that everybody is on track with, and that’s making the best beer that we can, and not releasing beer that’s not perfect.”

Of course, another challenge is finding the right market mix of brews. “There’s some of the partners that think it’s important to make certain kinds of beers, but knowing that, like this beet beer … well not everybody’s going to drink [it]. And something that Jason and I talk about all the time is that we also need to make some of the kinds of beers that people do drink all the time.”

Meeting customer needs is something that Michael learned from his retail shoe business-owning father. “I remember our conversation many years ago, there was some really just some disgustingly ugly shoes that my dad was purchasing at a shoe show in New York, and I said, “Dad, why are you buying those?” And I was just a kid at the time. He said, “Because that’s what my customers want.” So that’s also important. And discussions that [Jason and I] do, not only do we need to make the beers that we’re passionate about, we have to make beers that the customers are going to want to drink.”

Crane Brewing Company Works Because of the Team

“Well there are a lot of people that think just because it’s got my name on the brewery, that I own it, and I make a point … People praise us, or praise me, a lot, and I make a point of saying that I’m just lucky to have been at the right place at the right time of my life, and the right circumstances, for a group of people to come together, focused on making the brand of Crane Brewing the best that it can be. So I’m just part of a group, and just lucky to be involved and have other people that share the same connection that I have.”

The win Michael is that after taking two Best of Show awards but not being picked up by a brewery for scaling up, “now all my beers get scaled up and distributed.”